Using Your First Years Efficiently: What I wish I’d known…

A few weeks ago I was asked to come to a “New Faculty Forum” and give a talk on this topic. Always keen to follow my own advice, my initial reaction was to Just Say No – after all it takes time to prepare these things, and the timing of the actual session was right in the middle of my office hours for undergraduate students. However, it was a friend that asked – the friend who originally suggested that I write this blog, in fact – so it took me only a microsecond to decide to say “yes” instead.

Attending the forum was instructive for me, as there were two other speakers in addition to me (the old fart): one was a fairly new prof and the other a more mid-career level person. Their advice was very different from mine – in fact they mentioned (more than a few times) how they approached things differently than me – which just goes to show you: we never stop learning in this job – even an old prof can learn some new tricks.

Here’s the advice that I offered to the group…

First of all – like most of the advice I’m giving in this blog – my ‘so-called’ wisdom come from experience… experience in making all sorts of mistakes and, eventually, learning from those mistakes. Some mistakes I made for YEARS before I clued into what I was doing wrong. Hopefully, by hearing about what I did wrong, you can save yourself a few years of grief.

publish or perishThe biggest lesson I had to learn was actually the one we all know, and the one we all seem to deny consistently: you absolutely must “Publish or Perish”. Preparing lectures, answering emails, writing grant proposals, guiding graduate students, attending committee meetings, going to conferences… day to day work life ALWAYS gets in the way of writing up the papers. I don’t know a single academic who couldn’t say that they have at least 2 (more likely 6 or 8) papers that they should have out the door and published by now – but they just can’t seem to get the time to write them. However, the truth is – if you CAN get those papers out – your world will change. You will get more research money (yet need to write fewer proposals), more fame (if that matters to you), more (and much better) graduate students and – yep – more pay, as well. In addition, you will have more time for your family (i.e. your REAL life). In contrast, if you are not publishing regularly and prolifically, you will have a hard time getting tenure, grants, research clients, recognition, and promotion.

Here are the biggest mistakes I made in my early years as an academic:

  • I taught different courses every year, sometimes I had two (or more!) new courses to prepare each year.
  • I took on weak graduate students (just to get graduate students), since the top students all wanted to work with the “famous” profs.
  • I took contract projects with little or no publication potential, just to get money to pay these (weak) graduate students.
  • I always underestimated the amount of time and money I would need to complete a project.
  • I took on students/projects with topics outside my interest areas, just to get students and money – however, I found the work so tedious and boring that I could never muster the ambition to write up the papers afterwards.
  • I wasted my summers doing all the wrongs things.
  • I never took any vacation, and I worked evenings and weekends (and I still didn’t get the papers out).

I eventually learned a bit about graduate students and projects that turned things around for me. Here’s what I learned about graduate students:

  • Having a few (ideally 4 to 6) fantastic graduate students is infinitely better than having 15 or 20 mediocre graduate students.
  • Publish a lot of papers and the great students will find you.
  • Insist that your graduate students work reasonable (~business) hours and check up on keep in touch with them constantly to make sure they do. Instant messaging and texting are both very effective for this – and help them to keep in touch with you, too.
  • Meet with them regularly (at least weekly) – plan early meetings for the ones who tend to come in late.
  • Don’t pay them indefinitely. (Tell them up front how long they have.)
  • Plan their projects in terms of papers – and tell them right from the outset what papers will come out of their projects. (These may change along the way for the PhD students – but every course change should include revisiting the paper topics, so the goals are clear.)

For MSc projects, I aim to have at least one journal paper as the product. I’m in engineering, where MSc students typically find jobs before finishing the writing, so I generally write the journal paper myself from the thesis. The thesis has to be well written for this to be practical, so I insist on them getting it right. (The side benefit is that most of them leave as much better writers – probably one of the most important professional skills they could have.)

For PhD projects, I aim to have at least three journal papers as the product and I always insist that they do a “paper-format thesis.” That way there is no defence until the papers are actually written. Of course, I help them a lot with the writing – but it’s a win-win for both of us to go into the defence with, say, one paper published (or in press), one in press (or at least under review), and one submitted (or close to submission).

Here’s what I learned about projects:

  • Plan them out as papers. (if it’s not publishable, then don’t take the project!)
  • Both you and the student must be thrilled with the topic. If the student isn’t thrilled – their work simply won’t get done. If you’re not thrilled with it, then the papers will never get written. You’ll always find an excuse to avoid it.
  • Multiply the amount of time and money you think you’ll need by 3 – you’ll still likely come up short.

I also learned a few things about managing the summer months better (you may have read about that in my last post) and some teaching strategies for doing it well in less time (also the topic of an earlier post).

The biggest difference I see between successful young professors and successful older professors is not in terms of their enthusiasm – it’s in their time management skills. The older professors generally have more time for family and recreation (if they want it). Learning to get more done in less time, and to be ruthless in using your work time effectively, not only means that you’ll be more successful – hopefully you’ll be happier, too.

Please comment and add your feedback and/or advice on this topic. Thanks for reading!


4 thoughts on “Using Your First Years Efficiently: What I wish I’d known…

    • Thanks for visiting and commenting!
      That’s a good question you raise. It’s always hard to know up front – it helps if you can hire undergrads as summer students and recruit the best ones to do a Masters. Also, we often recruit Masters student for the whole group and then match students with professors once we all know each other better. For the PhD students, it’s much more difficult – some of the best ones ‘on-paper’ don’t actually pan out. It’s always great if you can get a good Masters student to stay on for a PhD – otherwise, really, it’s almost hit and miss.

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